TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A WOOD AND I TOOK THE ONE LESS TRAVELED…
The temperature was a very cool 64 degrees, and I felt my body begin to shake. Not from the fact that I was cold, but because this was my first official race and I was experiencing pre-race jitters. The nerves I was desperately fighting for control of my bowels were not steadied by the constant reminder, “30 mins until the start of the Half-Marathon”. I did a few quick strides to loosen up my hip flexors, they had been hurting me the day before as I stood in front of my 9th Grade Biology class, fumbling over words that I knew. Trying to get knowledge poured from my brain into the eager sponges that were my pupils. Every one of them knew I was nervous. They saw it on my face. My first race.
My teen boys told me they really understood, it was the same feeling they had when they lined up for the first game of the season. Every one of them promised to pray for me and “Ms. Jenny”, and wished us the best of luck. How did I, a combat hardened US Marine, become so soft that I let the thought of a race shake me in front of a group of teenagers as I tried to talk to them about the endocrine system.
Jenny has done this before. I remember seeing her decked out in her cute pink tutu, sporting the bib for the “Run Like A Diva, Half-Marathon” just a few months back. But this was my first official long distance race. The night before, we stayed in a cheap motel in Little River, South Carolina, each of us stretching out on our own queen sized bed. Our dinner was not what we had originally planned, the amount of water we drank was not according to plan. And the splitting headache that I had, was DEFINITELY not according to plan. In fact, I broke my paleo diet because I thought maybe I just needed caffeine. I all but chugged that Vanilla Orange Coke (not a bad flavor combination, actually), and eyed the “Rockstar Sugar-Free Punched” energy drink, that has become my absolute favorite drink in the last few weeks. But I knew that I would not get any sleep if I did that, so I closed my eyes and nodded off to the sounds of some tv show that Jenny found half-interesting.
When I awoke, my headache was still there, it was midnight, and I didn’t really have to be doing anything for another 5 hours. So I did what any sensible person would do…I tiptoed past my sleeping wife, careful not to wake the grumpy beast that she would become if I made too much of a sound, and made my way to the bathroom. Afterwards, I climbed back into my bed and lay there, hoping and praying for more sleep, but thinking about or race plan.
When our alarms blared at 5AM, we both got up, got dressed and continued to break our plan for the morning routine. Jenny had planned on eating an Egg Bite from Starbucks, I had planned on fasting…but what she couldn’t finish, I quickly consumed and while the delicious protein and fat bomb scalded the room of my mouth (the microwave was the only thing that really worked in our room) I followed it up with some of that Rockstar. Hoping that my headache would just give up and decide to mess with the noisy rednecks that slept outside in a camper parked right outside our room.
We loaded our stuff into the car, and began the 20 minute drive to Ocean Isle Beach. Runners were encouraged to get there before 6AM, and we crossed the massive bridge by 5:45. We had made it and were guaranteed a decent parking spot. We signed into the race coordinators, ensured our bibs were put on appropriately, and stood around waiting for “go time”.
The National Anthem was sung beautifully, while everyone glanced around for a flag to turn our attention to, but since there was not one present we resigned to placing our hands over our heart and facing the direction of the music (just like good little Marines are supposed to do). Upon conclusion of “…And the home, of the, BRAAAAAAAAAAAVE!” (sung with a slight crack in her voice) we were told to begin lining up by our pace times. Jenny and I took our place behind the 2:45 marker. Knowing that we were just slightly faster than 3 hours, but not ready to tackle the 2:30 times.
And before I knew it, my nerves had fled my body because we were moving. My Fitbit Surge started tracking my heart rate and I knew that I would be fighting to maintain a 140/bpm pace, like I had been training to do. My breathing was slow and steady but my head was still racing with fear that my “bad” ankle would give out and I would be DNF’d on my first attempt at an official race. I knew I wasn’t there to win, but I did want to try my best.
We turned right and immediately came to the big beast that Jenny and I dreaded. The horror that had been in the back of our mind the entire training cycle. The bridge to Ocean Isle Beach. To me, this did not seem like a normal bridge. I envisioned this mass of concrete and steel as the dragon or lava monster that the Marine’s slayed in the commercials. The elevation was something that neither of us had a solid plan to even prepare for. We live in an area that was mostly flat ground, the hills did not even come close to the elevation that we had to contend with here. Looking back on it, it wasn’t as bad as we thought. In fact, I could have easily taken that bridge at a decent pace, but at the time, we were unsure of how the rest of the course would treat us, so we slowed our pace and made it over at a cautious pace.
As we hit mile 1, we were passed going the other way by the leader, on his way to mile 3. He was really moving. His time ended up being 1:19:34. He was running at a pace of 6:34/mile, and it makes me sick to think that there are people in this world that can do that…guess age really plays hell on my ability to run fast. Jenny and I were starting to struggle. The time we clocked was 11:22/mile. We were going much faster than we had originally planned on. By the time we reached mile 2, we were at 11:08/mile. Jenny looked at me and we both started to panic, we had already felt the beginning of burnout. While my legs were feeling great, and I wasn’t really gasping for air, I knew that we were going to hit a wall and that it was going to hurt if we didn’t correct our plan.
Mile 3, 4, and 5 came and went. Through some beautiful housing areas (I am a sucker for sea-side towns) and then back across the bridge, which didn’t seem to be so daunting for the second time. The folks that lived in Ocean Isle Beach are super friendly, and came out in droves to cheer us on and wish us well. The volunteers at the water stops were helpful, and “Johnny on the Spot” when it came to water or gatorade. But Mile 6 is especially interesting. This is where Mother Nature decided to start playing with us. The heat and humidity did a slight jump. We were slowing our pace and averaged about 11:45/mile at this point, as we trucked on. Each of us noting that the mile markers were not really in line with our GPS. When we hit 7, I saw my first glimpse of humor. Someone had put up a “Free Beer” sign and set up a table to give a light beer to the runners that came by. I had to laugh because the worst thing I could think of was to drink a beer while trying to survive a long distance race.
We rounded the bend and the island’s signature water tower, and started making our way back toward the center of the commercial area. At Mile 8, the wheels started to come off. We were at 11:45/mile average still, but Jenny was feeling the hurt. I had made a very important discovery at this point, my watch had been charged in a regular power outlet instead of a computer like it is supposed to. That causes it to misbehave. Badly. I will now admit that I guess my heart rate was about 10 beats per minute above what it should have been. Meaning that we were really moving so much faster and pushing harder than we had ever pushed. At mile 10 we were walking almost as much as we were running. The water stops could not come fast enough and I really started to regret my decision to run without music. What started as a way to listen to my body and enjoy spending time with other people and being friendly had turned into a fight for survival.
By Mile 11, Jenny would take breaks to cry just a little, and I did my best to encourage her to keep going, even though I wanted to die inside myself. The spectators had started to thin out and make their way to the finish line, so that they could watch the awards ceremony. We could hear their cheers. We made it to mile 12, where there was supposed to be a popcicle stand, but I have to say that I was royally disappointed when I looked and no one was handing out those frosty sugary treats. I would like to say that this is the part where we dug deep and finished with a magical slow motion finish. “Chariots of Fire” playing in the background, but that would be an utter lie. We shuffled across the finish line, side by side. I was never more proud of my beautiful wife than I was in this moment. She had just completed her second half-marathon, pushing her body, which has gone through so much to reach her goal weight and the health issues that she had to work through to get to where she was.
Thus ends our adventure to the beautiful sea-side town of Ocean Isle Beach. The “after-party” wasn’t much to see, there were a few drunk people there, and some decent BBQ, but in the end it wasn’t much to look at and we needed to head back because I had to work that evening. But since 2nd and Charles was having a “costume contest”, I was happy to get home, shower quickly, put on a clean pair of running shorts and my “race t-shirt” and my medal. I showed up dressed as a guy that just finished running a race. I even had my race bib still pinned to me.
Now onto more aggressive plans. I have determined that it is more important to celebrate finish line, rather than the finish times. It is more important for us to celebrate the freedom that we as humans have when we are allowed to run. It is what can bring us together, it is what will reconnect us with God.
Now, get out there, start moving your body. Log in a mile or two or ten! Just go and do. So until the next time I have words to share and thoughts to express.